PLOTTING ALONG

Possible Sources of Anxiety

Especially in years past, I would get a little tense this time of year, because sometime soon I would have to sit down and map out the year’s vegetable garden. As usual, ideas have been bouncing around inside my head for the past few weeks, but the day must come — before April 1st, my date for planting peas — when procrastination must bow to action.Vegetable garden with trellis

When that time comes, I gather together on the kitchen table printouts of the empty beds in my two vegetable gardens, a sharpened pencil, and notes and plans of gardens past. After taking a deep breath, my first order of business, planning for crop rotation, begins. The theory: Plant no vegetable in the same spot sooner than every third year. The rationale: A garden pest might survive the winter to bother the same plant the following year . . . unless the plant happens to be growing elsewhere, in which case the pest starves and dies.

Pests usually are equally fond of all plants in a plant family, so I won’t grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, or potatoes (nightshade family) at the same location without waiting three years. Read more

Winter view from indoors

THE GARDEN IN WINTER

Forming Relationships

This may sound crazy but even this far north, winter isn’t a bad time to admire the garden. With leaves and flowers a memory of the past season and a hope for the coming season, the garden is reduced to its bare bones. Not that the wintry scene need be dull or bleak. Good bones give structure to the landscape, knitting it together in some places, dividing it up in others, framing vistas, and providing firm footing for the eyes (figuratively) and feet (literally). Even now.

Three-dimensional forms are what give structure to a landscape. A house usually is the most obvious mass jutting up into space on a property. Too often it’s the only structural element, feebly tied to the landscape with some gumdrop-shaped junipers or yews standing, as if guarding, the foundation.

Winter view from indoorsI have effected a relationship between my yard and my house by building a grape arbor out from the rear wall, then enclosing the ground beneath this arbor with a brick terrace (my house is also brick) edged with a low hedge of potentilla. Similarly, the stone wall supporting what previous were slopes at the front and side of my house flow into the landscape with a contiguous stone wall sweeping out across the yard. Read more

Rosemary & bay on their summer vacation with kumquat

GARDEN FRESH, STILL

Good Only in Theory?

The idea has merit: flowerpots of flavorful herbs decorating windowsills and providing savory additions to meals through the winter. A good part of last season’s garden is packed in the freezer and glistening jars of canned tomatoes line shelves in the basement. The greenhouse is offering a steady supply of lettuce, arugula, and other salad greens.Rosemary against a snowy backdrop

Still, I’m beginning to miss garden-fresh vegetables. Sprinkling some fresh chives on a pan of roasted potatoes might infuse the whole dish with freshness.

The problem is that chives doesn’t thrive on a windowsill, unless the windowsill is very, very sunny. Chives will grow well through the winter with artificial light, but that means a bank of lights permanently poised a few inches above the leaves — so much for the rustic charm of indoor potted herbs. And maybe my taste buds are dulled, but when I snip chives to add to a dish, I take a handful. The plant would need at least a few weeks to recover sufficiently to withstand another harvest.

The same could be said for growing parsley indoors; after each picking, you have to wait too long for another.

I haven’t thrown up my hands at the possibility of growing culinary herbs indoors through the winter. I just have to be very selective in what I grow. Any such herb must pack a lot of flavor into each leaf, survive well indoors, and look pretty. I offer at least two candidates: rosemary and bay laurel. Read more

Flowering kale with pink center

A FLOWER (PERHAPS EDIBLE) NOW AT ITS BEST

A Flower? Not

The same cold weather that has killed most herbaceous plants, or at least battered them ragged, has also brought out the color in flowering kale. Of course, the color is not really that of a flower, but that of a whorl of leaves — glaucous green or purple on the outside of the rosette and becoming more intensely white, pink, or red towards the center. Some varieties are even more ornate, with fringed leaves.Flowering kale with pink center

About this time each year, I make a mental note to plant seeds of flowering kale next season. But I always eventually forget to do it. For the past few weeks, though, I’ve been admiring a planting of flowering kale that has inspired me now to write myself a note about next year’s planting.

My source of inspiration can hardly be called a planting. It’s not a bed full of flowering kale, splashing color all over the place. Nor is it a single file of plants, lining and grabbing attention from a path. Read more

GREAT GIFT IDEAS: BOOKS (NOT ALL JUST) FOR GARDENERS

Fishing, Gardening

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” How true, also in gardening. Not to mention the emotional and intellectual gratification, the “companionship with gently growing things . . . [and] exercise which soothes the spirit and develops the deltoid muscles” (C. D. Warner, 1870).

Let’s take teaching the man — or woman — to fish one step further, gardenwise. Lot’s of people wow others with the expertise they have allegedly accrued as evidenced from the mere fact that they’ve spent a number of years, perhaps decades, with their hands in the dirt. I roll my eyes. Flowering plants originated at least 130 million years ago, which is plenty of time to let the trial and error of evolution teach them to grow. Tuck a seed into the ground and it will probably grow.

Better gardening comes from having some understanding of what’s going on beneath the ground and up in the plant. This comes from growing and observing a variety of plants growing in a variety of soils and climates — which is more than is possible in a lifetime.Gardening books

There’s a shortcut: books, a nice adjunct to getting your hands in the dirt. All of which is a roundabout way of my offering recommendations for books about gardening. The right book is also a great gift idea.

Read more

Popcorn, Pink pearl

HOME-GROWN GRAINS FOR ANYONE & EVERYONE

Show Some Respect

The problem with popcorn is that it, like Rodney Dangerfield, “don’t get no respect.” Sure, it’s a fun food, nice to toss into your mouth while you watch a movie. But that’s been the case only since the 1930s.

Popcorn is a grain, a whole grain, as good a source of nourishment as wheat, rice, rye, or any other grain. It was among the foods brought by native Americans to the first Thanksgiving dinner.

For anyone who likes the idea of raising their own grain, popcorn is a good choice. It’s easy to grow, it’s easy to process, and it’s easy to save seed from one year to the next. I grow two varieties — Pink Pearl and Dutch Butter-flavored — and have saved seed from my plantings for over 25 years.

Pink Pearl popcorn

Pink Pearl popcorn

Popcorn is also fun to grow, especially with children around. Growing it yourself also lets you choose a variety you like. You might think popcorn is just popcorn; they all taste the same. Not so! Last year’s crop yield came up a little short (my fault, for not checking the drip irrigation) so, for the first time in many years, I just purchased some to tide us over until this season’s crop becomes ready to eat. The purchased popcorn burst into large, fluffy clouds, but to call the flavor bland would be an understatement. Nothing like the rich flavors of Pink Pearl and Dutch Butter-flavored. Read more

Eliot and me

TIME FLIES, OR DOES IT?

A Real Olde Tyme Country Fair

Eighteenth century essayist and poet Charles Lamb wrote, “Nothing puzzles me more than time and space; and yet nothing troubles me less.” I agree and disagree. You can always revisit a space, but time, it keeps moving; there’s no grasping on to it.

I was reminded of Lamb’s musing on a recent visit to Maine. There were two reasons for the visit, the first being to attend and give a couple of presentations at the Common Ground Fair, organized and on the grounds of the Maine Organic Farming and Gardening Association (mofga.org). I highly recommend a trip to the Fair, which is always held around the third week in September.Mofga demo garden

This is not your usual country fair. For one thing, you won’t find bright lights and noisy rides there;  the Fair closes down at the end of each day. What you will find at the Fair is a wide array of Maine grown and Maine produced food, wool and woolen goods, wooden bowls and spoons, and numerous other items. Also many workshops and demonstrations of scything, spinning wool, blacksmithing, and other rural skills, and live music and plenty of livestock.

A Mere Half Century

I haven’t forgotten about Charles Lamb. His musings speak into the second part of my visit, which was to Four Season Farm, home, along with his wife Barbara Damrosch, of farmer, author, and a leading proponent of organic farming, Eliot Coleman. Read more

Uncovering frosted tomatoes

RE-EVALUATION

The Worst?!

Every year, when I tell my longtime friend Vicki, “This year is the best garden year ever,” she smiles and rolls her eyes in a friendly way. But it’s true: Another year of gardening experience, better varieties to grow (Picnic Orange pepper of last year is now on my must-grow list); improved weed management (tarping added to my list); better pest control (the dreaded spotted wing drosophila on blueberries); etc.

Picnic orange pepper

Picnic orange pepper

This year, Vicki was surprised when I finished my annual sentence with “the worst year ever.”

She, of course, asked why. I spared her, but will not spare you, all the gruesome details, as far as I can determine. Read more

Cabbage, lettuce, & arugula early September

THE “W” WORD

Onward!

I don’t want to sound like a scolding parent, but have you been paying attention to your garden? Late summer weather may not inspire any more gardening activity than reaching — among the weeds, perhaps? — for a juicy tomato. But onward: There is work to be done!Cabbage, lettuce, & arugula early September

About those weeds. Wait! Don’t close your eyes and stop reading (like a reprimanded child) just because I mentioned weeds. Please hear me out.

Weeds, left now to their own devices, are going to become worse troublemakers later. Annual weeds like lamb’s-quarters and purslane are dropping their seeds, sowing them for next spring. You presumably killed all perennial weeds with this season’s enthusiastic beginnings, but the roots of young perennial weeds are trying to find a home. Autumn’s cool, moist weather is just what horse nettle, bindweed, yellow and creeping woodsorrel, and other perennial weeds need to become firmly entrenched in your garden. Read more

Me scything

SPRINGTOWN FARMDEN, INT’L HEALTH SPA

“Ancient Japanese” Exercise(?)

Welcome to Springtown Farmden, the international health spa. Allow me to show you around for a tour of our exercise offerings. The techniques and equipment used come from all reaches of the world (or at least can sound like they do).

The first couple that can get your blood pumping “come from” across the Pacific, Japan. The first of these, sīth-ing (translation: scything), does require development of some technique and access our more specialized equipment, a sīth (translation: scythe).

The sīth has a single pole with two handles attached, one at the upper end and one about halfway down. The metal weight attached at the bottom of the sīth is a couple of feet long, curved, and sharpened on its inside edge. Muscle tone and strength is created by putting the left hand on the upper handle, the right hand on the lower handle, flexing the spine to the right and then unwinding yourself counterclockwise while trailing the metal weight just above ground level. (The best of these sīths come from Austria, but are available in the US here.)Me scything

Sīth-ing can be made more rigorous by passing the sharp metal through tall grass or meadow plants. The taller the plants, the denser the plants, and the older the plants, the more the resistance. Read more